April 20, 2021

There's No Place Like Grand Rapids

by Crime Show

Background show artwork for Crime Show

A small town in Minnesota has an identity crisis: Should they embrace their beautiful lakes for tourism, or Judy Garland, the troubled movie star who was born there? When a big crime hits their small town, the decision is no longer theirs.

Where to Listen


Lilah Crowe: We did an interview for people down in Minneapolis and we said, "Do you know where Grand Rapids is?" And they go, "Yeah, Michigan."

Emma Courtland: This is Lilah Crowe. She's the executive director of the historical society in Grand Rapids—not the one in Michigan.

Lilah Crowe: You have to say Grand Rapids, Minnesota. I always exaggerate. It's Min-ne-so-ta.

Emma: Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is a beautiful old logging town on the edge of the state's iron range, long known for its paper mill. It's about two hours from the Canadian border, three hours north of Minneapolis. Or in the words of one of Lilah's friends ...

Jody Hane: Do you know where the middle of nowhere is? Well, we're west of that.

Emma: Though even that doesn't narrow it down much, because there are five American cities named Grand Rapids, four of which are in the Midwest. If you Google "Grand Rapids," the one in Minnesota doesn't even show up on the first page of search results. And that can be a big problem for a small town. With traditional manufacturing sectors drying up all over the country, many towns have to depend on tourism. But tourists aren't gonna visit a place they've never heard of. And they're really not gonna visit a place they've heard of, if they think it's somewhere else.

Lilah Crowe: So we decided as a community that we had to change that thought pattern. We had to brand ourselves.

Emma: About 15 years ago, Grand Rapids brought in a marketing company to help them figure out what makes Grand Rapids special. I know this sounds a little corporate, but for a small town west of nowhere, it felt like a big opportunity to tell would-be visitors not just who they are, but what they stand for, what they care about. To dictate, in a sense, how they'll be seen by the wider world. It was a big decision, with potentially big consequences. So naturally, people wanted to weigh in.

Emma: So maybe I'll start by asking, what's special about Grand Rapids?

Lilah Crowe: We have trees. We have thousands of trees.

Susie Loeffler: We have a lot of forests.

Lilah Crowe: Our lakes are blue.

Tom Cobb: I guess there's lakes.

Jody Hane: A thousand lakes.

Tom Cobb: And a lot of woods.

Emma: For others, it was the small-town vibes.

Tom Cobb: We're not urban at all.

Aaron Jordan-Peterson: It's a charming little small rural community town from the look of it.

John Bauer: When certain things happen, people rally around a cause.

Susie Loeffler: We are not necessarily easy for outsiders.

John Bauer: It's just a nice, small, sleepy bedroom community.

Emma: But for one man we talked to, a retired museum director in town named John Kelsh, trees and neighborly attitudes were not the answer.

Emma: The problem seems to come down to, how do we differentiate ourselves from Grand Rapids, Michigan?

John Kelsh: Yes. And from the rest of northern Minnesota. And that's clearly Judy Garland.

Emma: Yes, that Judy Garland. This is what John wants you to know about Grand Rapids, that it's the birthplace of the glamorous Ms. Garland herself. You know her: the naive, fresh-faced star who played an even more naive and fresh-faced Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and then went on to become one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived—with a powerful voice, and a vulnerable heart and a whole lot of charisma.

Emma: But Judy Garland wasn't born Judy Garland. Back in 1922, she was called Frances Ethel Gumm, the child of vaudevillian performers in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. And it was in Grand Rapids that she walked on stage for the very first time, at her father's local theater. She was just two years old and tiny, but she had this huge voice. And people in town adored her.

Emma: But not for long. When she was still a toddler, her family moved away. And, as she shed her given name and became more and more known in the world beyond Grand Rapids, her former neighbors and admirers started to sour. And that feeling? It didn't go away. It snowballed for decades, passing from generation to generation, lodging itself in the very heart of the debate over what makes Grand Rapids special. Until years later, in 2005, when that decades-long debate would be settled in a single night. Not by a town hall, or even by a city council vote, but by a crime that would come to define the town to the outside world.

Lilah Crowe: I kind of went into shock. It's like, no way. This is Grand Rapids.

John Kelsh: But there is also a lot of, like, secrets.

Jody Hane: Right away, the rumors started.

John Bauer: There's a lot of level of secrecy here that I don't like.

Tom Cobb: My goodness, what a tempest in a teapot!

Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.

Emma: If you take US Highway 169 into Grand Rapids, the first thing you'll probably see is a looming water tower stamped with the town's slogan.

Lilah Crowe: "Grand Rapids. It's in Minnesota's nature."

John Kelsh: Oh, I could just punch whoever [laughs] Well, it's just ridiculous.

Emma: John Kelsh founded the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. And if you can't tell, he is not a fan of the town's slogan, the result of that marketing campaign the town organized to figure out what it is that makes Grand Rapids special. To put it mildly, John thinks that effort missed the mark.

John Kelsh: An hour from here is just as good nature. You know, two hours from here is just as good nature. It's nothing unique.

Emma: What would you make the motto if you could pick a motto for the town?

John Kelsh: "There's no place like home," would be the best.

Emma: Back in 1987, long before Grand Rapids had a town slogan, John was just a young man, looking to make a life for himself in a new place. At 30 years old and fresh off his first museum job with a graduate degree under his belt, John hopped in his car and drove six hours from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He was on his way to take a job at the town's local historical society. John was really excited. It had always been his dream to build a museum from scratch, and he felt like Grand Rapids was somewhere he would be able to do that.

Emma: But at the time, young John had no idea what he was walking into.

John Kelsh: I had no idea Judy was born here. Nope. Had absolutely no idea.

Emma: Nor did John know that that fact—that Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Judy Garland—would become the axis around which his life would revolve for the next 30 years. Or that his devotion to Judy Garland would eventually lead to a crime that would come to define Grand Rapids, and captivate international audiences for more than a decade.

Emma: In 1987, John didn't know any of that. Like a lot of us, he didn't even know Judy Garland was from the Midwest. He says that crucial fact was never even mentioned in his job interview, and there were no signs or placards in Grand Rapids that might have clued him in. Nothing to let newcomers know that this was the birthplace of Judy Garland.

Emma: And John might never have known if he hadn't spotted a small display way in a back corner of one of the historical society's exhibit rooms. The case held just a scrapbook, a few photos, and a single, lonely artifact—a rayon scarf that had been sold to fans as Wizard of Oz swag back in the 1930s.

Emma: And that seemed pretty odd to John. If your town is connected to someone as important as Judy Garland, why would she be stashed away in the corner? Why wouldn't you yell that from the rooftops? Because it's not like Garland is some outdated B-list celebrity, she's Miss Show Business. She spent 45 of her 47 years dazzling audiences in The Wizard of Oz and countless other MGM films, and singing sold-out stage performances all over the world—from Carnegie Hall to the London Palladium. During her later years, Garland became an icon of the queer community, and she's remained so ever since.

Emma: All that to say, Judy Garland is beloved. When she entertained, she offered up her entire soul—the beautiful and the ugly. And people loved her for it. People like John Kelsh. As it happened, John was a big admirer of Judy's.

John Kelsh: Someone gave me a cassette tape of Judy Garland's greatest hits. And I played that cassette all winter long. [singing] "It's a new world. It's a new world for me." Like that, I just fell in love with her.

Emma: So when John found out that Judy Garland was actually from this town where he'd come to work, it was like magic to him. He quickly learned that there were other people in Grand Rapids who loved Judy as much as he did, people he would come to refer to as "the true believers."

Susie Loeffler: When somebody just says, "Oh, sing a song," the first one that pops into my head is "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," because I've sung it so many times.

Chelsey Jo Johnson: Personally, I think Judy Garland is one of the greats.

Susie Loeffler: [singing] "When all the world is a hopeless jumble ..."

Chelsey Jo Johnson: You know, she connects our town with Broadway, Vaudeville, Hollywood.

Susie Loeffler: [singing] "... heaven."

Aaron Jordan-Peterson: For me, she's always just been, like, this haunting rainbow, I guess, of a person.

Emma: But soon after his arrival in Grand Rapids, John started to realize that there were other people—and more than a few—in Grand Rapids who didn't exactly think Judy Garland was a "haunting rainbow."

Emma: How do you feel about Judy Garland?

Jody Hane: Personally?

Emma: Yup.

Jody Hane: Well, I guess I just don't care. [laughs]

Emma: [laughs]

Jody Hane: I don't know what else to tell you.

Tom Cobb: I don't think anything of her. [laughs]

John Bauer: She didn't care about Grand Rapids.

Jody Hane: And then there's the people that go, "Well, there's a lot more important people that came out of Grand Rapids than Judy Garland."

John Bauer: It's not like I dislike Judy Garland, but as time goes on, I really don't care about Judy Garland.

Tom Cobb: Judy Garland? Who cares?

Emma: The answer to John was obviously, a lot of people. John figured, maybe they just didn't realize what they had, that Judy Garland was a rainbow with a freaking pot of gold at the end of it. That if they embraced her, they could seriously boost the town's economy. All John had to do was convince Grand Rapids that Garland was their pot of gold.

Emma: And how hard could that be, to turn a few "Judy Garland agnostics" into "true believers?" So, John began his crusade. He found out that, in the past, the town had hosted a summer festival in celebration of Judy's birthday. By all accounts, the summer festival had been super successful, if a lot of work. Which John didn't mind. So he decided to resurrect the festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of Oz—and dial it up to 11. John's plans included massive marching bands and the original munchkins! And for the main event? The artifact that is most associated with Judy Garland. You guessed it—the ruby slippers. The sparkling red, "There's no place like home," "Let's get Dorothy back to Kansas" slippers.

Emma: The ruby slippers are the most iconic piece of cinema history ever. Imbued with the magic of Oz and Hollywood, these shoes are also really valuable—if not entirely unique. There are actually five pairs of ruby slippers, but that doesn't seem to have diminished their value. I used to work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA, and we had a pair that were worth $2 million.

Emma: But talking about the ruby slippers in terms of money doesn't do them justice. For a lot of fans, the slippers are like this Holy Grail; a treasure that holds real power. Just like in The Wizard of Oz, they aren't just pretty shoes, they are a tool, a sort of talisman that could change things for the better. The question was: could they change the minds of the people in Grand Rapids?

Emma: John tracked down an LA-based collector of movie memorabilia willing to lend him his pair for the festival. Before the event, John says this guy hand-delivered the priceless slippers to his gallery, where they were placed atop a white pedestal at the very center of the event space. The ruby slippers were ready for their Grand Rapids debut.

Emma: And on the day of the event, when John looked outside the museum's front door, he saw a line around the block. People had come from all over the country to Grand Rapids, just to see the ruby slippers.

John Kelsh: Oh, they were from all over: California, Arizona, Florida, East Coast.

Emma: One girl traveled all the way from Alaska.

John Kelsh: She was blind, and she was convinced that if she could touch the ruby slippers, she would regain her sight. Honest to God.

Emma: But it wasn't just out-of-towners who wanted to see the shoes. People from Grand Rapids got in line, too.

Lilah Crowe: When those slippers were here? Oh, my goodness! All of us were proud of that. So many people went to see the slippers.

Emma: Even the locals were having a blast. By every measure, the slippers were a huge hit.

John Kelsh: I mean, we were on the CBS Evening News with Connie Chung. CBS Evening News! Like, a four-minute story about Grand Rapids. I just couldn't believe it. I kept playing it over and over again. [laughs]

Emma: Beyond all this attention, the slippers also had a tangible impact on the town. John said that one local business owner told him that during the festival, his sales went up 30 percent.

John Kelsh: Oh, I was just on cloud nine, I was so excited about the potential that we had.

Emma: John started to daydream about the next phase of his Judy Garland crusade.

John Kelsh: I envisioned a separate Judy Garland museum, you know, that would have its own little board, and that we would buy the Judy Garland house and that we would restore it. That was the next step, obviously.

Emma: The house that Garland grew up in was still standing in Grand Rapids. When it eventually went up for sale, John managed to secure a donor to help buy it.

John Kelsh: And I took it to the historic society board of directors for a decision, and they turned it down.

Emma: The society said, "No way." They were worried it was too much of a financial risk.

John Kelsh: And I was just crushed after being there five years, putting all my energy into this. They didn't want anything to do with the house.

Emma: John also petitioned the city council to put up signs around town that said "Birthplace of Judy Garland." But they said the same thing the historical society did: "No way." The signs had to come down.

John Kelsh: It got in the newspaper: "Grand Rapids rejects Judy Garland."

Emma: But why? John's festival had met every metric of success for how to brand a small town. And yet, Grand Rapids was still reluctant to yell Garland's name from the rooftops. So what was the hangup? When we asked around, a lot of people said the same thing: they just didn't care about Judy Garland. But if people just didn't care, you'd think John would have been able to put up his Judy signs, no problem.

Emma: To John, this felt like something deeper than apathy—an outright rejection of Judy. And when I pushed people on it, like one of Lilah's friends and colleagues, Jody Hane, she admitted there was something to that, though she was extremely polite about it.

Jody Hane: It was just a distaste for the lifestyle at the time.

Emma: I asked Jody to explain what she meant by "the lifestyle at the time," but all I could get her to say was ...

Jody Hane: The Hollywood mess. And I'm just gonna say that. [laughs]

Emma: Since Jody can't say it, I will. Judy Garland had a lifelong addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, which made her prone to very public meltdowns—often on stage. And she was married five times. A lot, even by Hollywood standards. It might have been easy for Grand Rapids to get behind naive, fresh-faced Dorothy from Kansas, but not Judy Garland, who never came back from Oz.

Emma: Garland left Grand Rapids as a toddler, and only came back to perform once, right before she got really famous. After that, in 1941, the community gathered 200 signatures asking Garland to come visit her hometown. But she never did. Instead, she stayed in LA, and had a sprawling, rollercoaster of a career until she died of an accidental drug overdose at 47.

Lilah Crowe: How can I put it? And we were proud of our community. We're proud of it. And I really think maybe our branding said it: We're in Minnesota's nature, which has nothing to do with a movie star.

Emma: Eventually, even without the support of the historical society, John did manage to find enough private donors to transform Judy Garland's childhood home into the museum of his dreams. And to that museum, John brought the ruby slippers three more times. Each time the shoes visited, they drew people from all across the country to Grand Rapids. But for some people, that wasn't a good thing. For some people, it felt like John's Judy crusade was actually drawing attention away from the verdant, neighborly Grand Rapids they loved.

John Kelsh: In a small town, there's no such thing as a tall flower. Have you ever heard that? Everything like attractions and different events and things like that, all have to be—they're on the same level of importance. No one thing can override another. And that's really true here.

Emma: Here in the small town of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, there was no question which flower stood the tallest—Judy Garland and her magical, tourist-attracting slippers. Until one balmy night in the summer of 2005, when someone came along and plucked it.

John Kelsh: I'd gotten up on a Sunday morning, just gotten out of the shower.

Emma: The phone rang. It was one of John's colleagues from the museum.

John Kelsh: And all she said was, "They're gone!" And I knew exactly what she meant.

Emma: According to John, the day of the crime started off like any other. He'd gotten up and showered, and then he got the call from his coworker.

John Kelsh: And all she said was, "They're gone!"

Emma: John raced to the museum, opened the door and stepped inside. And that's when he saw the first signs that something awful had happened.

John Kelsh: There was glass strewn all down the hallway.

Emma: John walked into the museum's main gallery and toward the pedestal in the center of the room that had, just the day before, held his most prized artifact, on loan from a collector in LA.

John Kelsh: The plexiglass top had been shattered. It lay in pieces on the floor.

Emma: And the shoes? Dorothy's sparkling, ruby slippers?

John Kelsh: Sure enough, they were gone.

Emma: All that was left behind was ...

John Kelsh: Just one sequin.

Emma: A single, ruby red sequin. The first thing John did was call the police to report the robbery. But they found no fingerprints, no other fibers, no sign that anything else was taken.

John Kelsh: The robbers obviously just wanted the slippers.

Emma: It was a hit job, and it wasn't long until everyone in town knew about it.

Lilah Crowe: It's like, no way. This is Grand Rapids. Nobody would ever steal anything in Grand Rapids.

Chelsey Jo Johnson: It was like, what? Who would do that? That can't be real.

Emma: No one could believe it. Even so, people weren't really that worried at first. Because losing an artifact is not like losing a laptop. You can't just wipe the hard drive and resell it. Anyone who knew what the slippers were worth would know they were stolen. And it should only have been a matter of time before they showed up again. The town called a press conference to get the word out, and then everyone just waited. And waited. And waited. But they didn't hear anything. No one we talked to even knew anyone who was questioned by police. Or what, if anything, was happening with the investigation.

Lilah Crowe: Everybody said there was a private detective that was hired to do it by somebody, but we never, ever knew who that was. We didn't know who hired them. So I thought that that was more of a rumor.

Emma: There were other rumors too.

Lilah Crowe: We were told that the FBI was involved. But I never ran into anybody that I would even suspect to be an FBI.

Emma: Which is why, to some of the people we spoke to, it kind of seemed like the authorities weren't actually taking the crime very seriously at first. Regardless of the town's feelings about Judy Garland, this did not sit well with people.

Jody Hane: Well, everybody here hoped that they'd be found. That was the thing. We need to find the slippers, we've got to find the slippers.

Emma: So in lieu of any official information, people started to fill in the gaps with their own theories. And at first, the most popular suspicion was ...

John Bauer: It had to be an inside job.

Chelsey Jo Johnson: People were convinced that it was an inside job.

John Bauer: I mean, it doesn't take a Longmire to figure that out. It had to be an inside job.

Tom Cobb: If I had a million dollars, I wouldn't be leaving it laying around on a counter underneath some plexiglass.

Sarah Bignall: Like, why wasn't it better guarded?

Emma: In this town, where there's no such thing as a tall flower, the first fingers pointed to the very person who had brought the ruby slippers to Grand Rapids—John Kelsh. Because the thing we haven't told you yet is that the circumstances surrounding the break-in did not look good for John. For one ...

John Kelsh: The door to the gallery was left open that night.

Emma: It was usually locked, but it hadn't been that night. And even worse ...

John Kelsh: The alarm system for the doors had been disabled.

Emma: The thief had been able to shatter a window on a back door and walk into the museum without setting off any alarms or being picked up by the security camera. John told people there was a simple explanation for this: there's a children's exhibit attached to the museum and, during open hours, kids used to come in and out all the time, setting off the alarm again and again. So John asked the security company to turn off the system, assuming that they'd turn it back on at night. But they hadn't. As for the security camera, it was routinely turned off after hours, and it didn't record footage anyway.

Emma: And the gallery door that was left open? John told us it was done on purpose to help keep the temperature inside the gallery stable. And there was another big problem with this theory that John was the thief.

Jody Hane: In a town this size, if somebody won $100 on a scratch-off lottery ticket, you know.

Emma: Jody Hane, again.

Jody Hane: So for it to be a local just seem beyond the realm. It just didn't make sense, because who would be quiet that long? Nobody.

Emma: And as far as we know, John was never an official suspect. He says he was never formally questioned by police. Plus, the company that had insured the slippers did a serious investigation into the theft. They sent out an investigator who interviewed everyone at the museum at length. The insurance company even sued the museum, claiming that its security shortcomings were a breach of contract. But the lawsuit was eventually dropped.

Emma: So if John didn't steal the slippers, then who did? Everyone had a favorite theory.

Lilah Crowe: The first thing I said, it's got to be the black market. It's got to be somebody that's from out of town.

Jody Hane: You know, you could hear "Mob." Well, that's just Midwest talk for anybody bad.

Lilah Crowe: Well, to be honest with you, we said New York at the time. [laughs] Sorry!

Aaron Jordan-Peterson: I had some bitter feelings towards a lot of actors in this community at that time. I'm like, "I bet you they stole them. I know it!"

Emma: From what we can tell, the police did get really serious about finding the shoes. And they chased down a lot of these rumors, no matter how far fetched they seemed. But not a single one panned out. So people in Grand Rapids started watching flea markets and online marketplaces to see if they could catch the thief trying to sell the stolen shoes.

Lilah Crowe: And they would talk about, "You know, if we could find those slippers, we'd be famous."

Emma: Everyone, the "true believers" and the "Garland agnostics" alike were paying attention. It was all just kind of exciting!

[NEWS CLIP: Intrigue and mystery and sequins, oh my! All in a pair of size five and a half slippers. The pair of original ruby slippers used in the filming of the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, are missing.]

Emma: See, it wasn't just people in Grand Rapids that were talking about the theft, this thing was all over national news. Even David Letterman joked about it in his monologue.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, David Letterman: A pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz have been stolen. The thief is being described as armed and fabulous.]

Emma: And suddenly, it became normal to see cameras in Grand Rapids—which definitely hadn't been the case before. And that continued to be true for years after the theft. Like, there was one especially wild theory that brought cameras to town: that someone had put the slippers into some kind of container—maybe a paint can—and then dumped them in an old mine pit that had long ago filled with water.

Emma: So a documentary crew from the TV show Expedition Unknown showed up in town to look for the slippers at the bottom of the pit on camera.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Expedition Unknown: In these icy conditions, a police cruiser can only go so far.]

Emma: The crew had convinced the Grand Rapids Police Department's diving team to take them into the pit—which was frozen over. So they drilled a big hole into the ice, and ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Expedition Unknown: We splash in. …]

Emma: They jumped in! Under the ice, the divers swam around for a while, looking for anything that could be a paint can. Eventually, their sonar picked something up. It was a paint can. They pulled it to the surface, and used a hammer to pry open the top.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Expedition Unknown: There's something really heavy in this. What is that?]

Emma: Inside the can was ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Expedition Unknown: Oh, no! Rocks! Rocks.]

Emma: Just rocks.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Expedition Unknown: Not slippers.]

Emma: It was definitely a bummer, but all this attention on Grand Rapids? It was still really fun.

Lilah Crowe: It was just a hoot, because all of a sudden people in Atlanta, Georgia, read about the ruby slippers, and Grand Rapids is on the map.

Chelsey Jo Johnson: We were on the map in a new way. It put us in the spotlight, and it was a good conversation topic.

Aaron Jordan-Peterson: I would say, "Oh, I'm from Grand Rapids." And, of course, the first thing, "Oh, yeah! Who stole the shoes?" And I was like, "First of all, they're slippers."

Emma: People from out of town were asking people from Grand Rapids about the missing shoes—excuse me, "slippers." And John said people would come by the museum for the same reason: to ask for updates on the mystery. And amidst all this attention, something started to hit home with some of the people in Grand Rapids, something they hadn't fully appreciated before: that other people, they cared about Judy Garland, too.

Sarah Bignall: It made me realize how significant Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz was to American culture.

Chelsey Jo Johnson: And that kind of created, like, this—oh, wow! People actually know who Judy Garland is, and they know about The Wizard of Oz, and suddenly they know about Grand Rapids, Minnesota, too.

Emma: John had been right all along. Judy wasn't just some weird Grand Rapids obsession—she mattered. And so the worst thing that had ever happened at John's museum also turned out to be the thing that proved him right. It didn't necessarily matter to outsiders that Garland had left Grand Rapids as a toddler, or that she'd gone on to that "Hollywood mess." People still cared. And over time, some people started to sort of lean into the theft.

Emma: As the years ticked by, without any news on the whereabouts of the slippers, Grand Rapids started holding ruby slippers scavenger hunts.

Lilah Crowe: All the stores had a different kind of ruby slipper, and then they hid them in the store. And you had to go in, you had this little card, and they would stamp it if you found the slippers.

Emma: And mystery dinner theater.

John Kelsh: Who Stole the Slippers? That was fun.

Emma: Even ...

Lilah Crowe: There's a sandwich in her name now.

Emma: In town, there were multiple eye-catching signs that asked, "Who stole the ruby slippers?" And the pedestal in the museum where the shoes had been snatched? John left it empty, with nothing but a tantalizing plaque telling the story of the theft.

Lilah Crowe: They just kind of had fun with it. Tried to have fun with it.

Emma: One year, on the tenth anniversary of the robbery, the museum even sent its own divers into one of the pits during the annual Judy Garland festival.

Lilah Crowe: I mean, they made it a big, huge event.

Emma: More of a publicity stunt than a serious search, but it worked. A lot of people turned out to watch. Yes, this all might sound a little gimmicky, but come on, can you blame them? I mean, I don't have to tell you: crime sells.

Lilah Crowe: So, you know, Hollywood, I think, has helped us, too. Really.

Jody Hane: You know, as long as they're missing and it's a big mystery, we still get our tourism value out of it, because they're gonna come in and look at the empty box and try to play detective.

Emma: And that's what they did for about 13 years. Until one day in 2018, completely out of the blue, Lilah was in a meeting when she says a detective from the Grand Rapids Police Department pulled her aside. She says he ushered her into a storage closet so that they could talk privately.

Lilah Crowe: They wanted to prepare us again. Because we had been hit by the media, they said, "You're gonna get hit again." And as soon as they said that to me, I said, "You found the slippers, didn't you?"

Emma: There was going to be a mysterious press conference, held by the FBI!

Lilah Crowe: I think everybody in town got in front of a computer, because they wanted to watch.

Emma: And find out what on Earth the FBI could have to say about this theft that had hung over their community for more than a decade. At the historical society, Lilah pulled up a live stream of the press conference, and a group of her neighbors gathered to watch.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, FBI agent: We're here today to share with you the recovery of one of the most significant and cherished pieces of movie memorabilia in American history.]

Emma: Lilah was right—they'd found the ruby slippers. But that's about all they said at the press conference. No details on how they'd tracked down or secured the slippers. And since it's still technically an open case, the police and the FBI wouldn't talk to us either. But we were able to cobble together a pretty good idea of how they tracked down the slippers from news coverage and the few public statements the FBI did make.

Emma: Here's what we know: according to a statement from law enforcement, in 2017, some "middle man" contacted the company that insured the slippers, saying that he had information on the whereabouts of the famous items and how to get them back. It sounded like this guy wanted to broker a trade. One law enforcement agent said it was clear this was extortion. That's when the Grand Rapids police decided they needed help, so they called the FBI.

Emma: The FBI stepped in and launched a year-long investigation that would eventually end in the most FBI-sounding thing I can think of: an undercover operation. Which is how, sometime in 2018, somewhere in Minneapolis, the FBI walked away with a paper bag containing the stolen ruby slippers, which they unveiled at that 2018 press conference, watched by Lilah and Jody and John, and everyone else who cared.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, FBI agent: Now, under the rainbow.]

Emma: And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, FBI agent: All right, folks. With that, thank you. We're gonna take some time to set up a couple of ...]

Emma: The FBI wrapped up the press conference without answering the one question that everyone had been waiting to hear: who stole the ruby slippers?

Sarah Bignall: We don't know who took them. We don't know the why.

Jody Hane: It was like, yeah, that's over. [laughs] Now what do we do?

Sarah Bignall: I mean, there's still a lot of mystery around what happened to it. And I think all of us want to know, like, why did you take them?

Aaron Jordan-Peterson: So I still kind of feel a little bit like I'm on a cliffhanger waiting for the next season or something.

Emma: Maybe the FBI knows who did it, maybe they don't. The statute of limitations on the theft has run out, but they could be trying to catch the culprit on other charges. We just don't know. As for the slippers? It's unlikely they'll ever return to Grand Rapids. It's not like the museum has a particularly encouraging track record on security.

Emma: But it hasn't been a total loss. The crime gave Grand Rapids something it desperately needed: a way to differentiate itself from all the other little Midwest towns. Something singular and special. A brand that not even the mighty Grand Rapids, Michigan, can touch.

Lilah Crowe: I mean, I even go to conventions and they say, "Where are you from?" "I'm from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the birthplace of Judy Garland, where the ruby slippers were stolen." Everybody just starts laughing.

Emma: At least for now, they get to keep the mystery.

Emma: This will be my last question, I promise. And you'll have to forgive me, because we've been asking everyone since the mystery is unsolved. Did you steal the slippers?

John Kelsh: [laughs] No.

Tom Cobb: No, but I could have. Yeah, all it would have taken was pliers, man. You could’ve just snapped that little padlock.

Jody Hane: Well, everybody knows I only have one pair of shoes, so ... [laughs]

Emma: Can you put it down? John did not steal the slippers. Great. Okay, cool. We're good.

John Kelsh: [laughs]

Emma: [laughs]

Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. This episode was produced by Cat Schuknecht and me, Emma Courtland.

Emma: Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Additional production help from Anya Schultz, and fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka.

Emma: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch.

Emma: Liz Fulton helped us license the song you're listening to now, "Get Happy," sung by the one and only Judy Garland.

Emma: Special thanks to Rachel Strom and Jonah Delso. And an extra special thanks to Heidi Holtan, the news and public affairs director for Northern Community Radio, who was our eyes and ears in Grand Rapids. She helped us bring you the voices of the wonderful Grand Rapids residents you heard in this episode. In order of appearance: Susie Loeffler, Tom Cobb, Aaron Jordan-Peterson, John Bauer, Chelsey Jo Johnson and Sarah Bignall.